What is intelligence? We call ourselves the most intelligent species on the planet and yet we have wars, poverty, oppression and the squandering of natural resources. The list is endless. Obviously, intelligence is not always measured in terms of a creatures ability to manipulate events and surroundings, for what at the time, it considers to be in its best interests. In the final analysis we may be equating intelligence with survival, which in the case of mankind today is no more assured than that of the flea!
Perhaps we should consider intelligence as the ability to reason in an abstract way, but how do you measure a mental process? In our own case we can use various IQ tests with different degrees of sophistication. Most of these tests lean towards a mechanical or mathematical approach and just illustrate a particular way of thinking, which is largely based on the training and environment we receive from birth.
Most of us have very similar thought processes. For instance, it is quite easy to visualise three billiard balls in a straight line on a green table without splitting them into groups. Try increasing the number to five and it becomes more difficult not to see them as one group of three and one of two, or one of four and one. The whole process becomes harder as you increase the number of balls in the line. The reason is that our brains are only programmed to work in a certain way. In this case it illustrates that the human thinking process tries to place objects in mathematical blocks or patterns. If the cetaceans do not have this programme, does that mean that they are not intelligent? No. It just means that they have different thought processes. For instance, we have seen a Common Dolphin caught by the simple means of drawing a net around him on the surface of the water. He could easily have jumped over it, but he just could not think in this particular pattern.
It would appear that in some instances however, that they can adapt to out methods of thinking. Some dolphins, who are natural mimics, have been taught to mimic human speech out of water. Not in the way that a parrot does but using words in context to pass information. In our discussion, we may well find that we are not so very far ahead of the dolphin mentally. Is perhaps our big brain the answer to our supposed superiority? The elephant has a larger brain than man and yet we would not say that the elephant is as intelligent as we are. The dolphin brain does have one physical characteristic that is as developed as ours, if not more so, and that is the cerebral cortex.
The cerebral cortex in man is understood to be the part of the brain that controls the higher thought processes, such as reasoning, behaviour, social attitudes and learning. In man it is extremely well developed, having many convolutions and a large surface area with many neurons. If we examine the brain of the dolphin, we find that although the brain is a different shape to fit into a streamlined skull, it has the same weight as ours. He also has the same brain to body weight ratio as ourselves, the highest in the animal kingdom, yet again, with an equally developed cortex. In other words "THE COMPUTER IS AS GOOD AS OURS". Perhaps we should now be talking about the potential for intelligence only as we understand it.
We saw earlier that cetaceans evolved from a land animal and have been living in the sea for about 25 million years. Having physically adapted to this change, there was little pressure to evolve further in the face of a bountiful existence. Those challenges available were chiefly of a social nature and the first amongst these was speech. We have seen how vocal cetaceans are. This is not of the same order for instance, as bird song which is usually to attract a mate or to stake out territory.
Cetaceans seem to delight in making sounds that when carefully analysed, are not repetitive and the more of them present, the more vocal they become, rather like a school outing.
An examination of the brain shows that the speech centres are indeed well developed and it is difficult not to conclude that some form of verbal interchange of information is taking place. Unfortunately, no one so far has managed to decipher this language, if it is one, although it is good practice for when we meet the little green men from outer space. NASA have spent large sums of money researching with dolphins as an exercise in communicating with an alien intelligence. If dolphins do have a language that we could understand and it seems with the help of computers that one day we may be able to, the amount of information we could receive, if put to the right use, would be absolutely invaluable.
Another manifestation of dolphin intelligence are the social structures that they have set up. These are not similar to the ones that you find in bees or ants, as these have been genetically programmed to behave in a certain way. Dolphins can adapt to constantly changing situations. This has been one of the problems when studying them in captivity, as their behaviour is considerably modified under these circumstances, as our is, when kept in overcrowded and confined quarters.
Dolphin intelligence seems to be directed along paths of enjoyment, which in themselves do not bring a physical reward, but are rewarding mentally and in some cases appear to involve a sense of humour. We were at "Sea World" in Florida a few years ago and were back stage with a group of Bottle Nosed Dolphins. Before they would come and make friends, we had to perform tricks for them, which in this case consisted of getting a leaf from the other side of the pool and bringing it back to them. The dog and stick game, but played the other way around; we were the dog!
On another occasion, just before a performance, the dolphins hid all the equipment they use under a ledge at the bottom of the pool and a diver had to go down to retrieve it before the act could start. Again in the Bay of Gibraltar we have seen a group of 50 dolphins taking it in turns to race around a circular path of about half a mile in diameter. This went on for an hour with much boisterous leaping and splashing and was nothing to do with feeding or mating, but appeared to be some sort of contest. Dolphin Olympics? All this shows that these creatures require a large degree of mental stimulation and perhaps the big train is being developed for the purpose of enjoyment.
Dolphins require the presence of another intelligent companion, it is not possible to keep them in captivity on their own. Indeed, in the solitary state they will just switch off and die in a matter of a few hours for no apparent physical reason. When dolphins are transported from one Dolphinarium to another, it is necessary to have a human companion who will quietly talk to them and gently touch them for the whole of the journey. This is also part of the routine of trying to help a stranded cetacean on a beach.
They seem to have an awareness of social obligation towards each other and we have seen an injured animal being supported on the surface by others to enable it to breathe. This awareness also extends to other creatures and there are many authentic cases of them aiding human beings in distress when they are in the water. There are also stories of dolphins helping man to catch fish, some of which go back to the days of the Roman writer Pliny who lived in the first century AD. In modern times, off the coast of Mauritania, there is filmed evidence of dolphins rounding up fish to enable fishermen to catch them without any reward to the dolphins.
The primitive ancestors of man appeared about 25 million years ago in the form of a small monkey-like creature. At this time the dolphin was starting to evolve and in another 12 million years was equipped with a large brain. Man would have to wait a further 9 million years before reaching this level. One would think that with this start the dolphin would now be the dominant creature on Earth. Instead man has achieved this position because of four related factors which are:
- A large complex brain.
- A life span long enough to acquire and store experience, even primitive man lived for about 25 to 35 years.
- Language; giving him the power to pass on this experience to his associates and offspring.
- The possession of an opposable thumb, allowing him to fashion tools with precision.
The dolphin has the first three of the necessary requirements and it is only in the last, the ability to make tools, that he is deficient. It would appear that man has only achieved his pre-eminence on Earth by the last of these gifts, "AN OPPOSABLE THUMB". The more he fashioned objects, the more he exercised his brain, the more he exercised his brain, the more complicated these tools became. The process is still continuing and now for the first time, a living creature has the power to totally destroy its own kind everywhere on the planet in the course of a single day. This may seem a little heavy, but the more one comes into contact with cetaceans, whether in captivity or in the wild, one cannot help but compare their social attitudes to those of man. In the long term the Cetacean may yet become Earth's most successful species.
Intelligence has many faces. That of the dolphin is different indeed!